Family Retail Store Thrives by Investing in Its Own Website
By Greg Holden
Can a family-owned retail store take on Amazon and other online giants and thrive in the ultra-competitive world of ecommerce? Jon Abt believes the answer is yes.
Abt is a member of the third generation of his family to own and operate Abt Electronics, a retail store located north of Chicago in Glenview, IL. That's Abt's one and only physical store, founded by his grandfather in 1936.
Abt extends the reach of that single facility via its ecommerce site Abt.com, which has been designated a Google Trusted Store. That's Google's designation for online businesses that are especially trustworthy and allowed to display its Trusted Store badge. The program is designed to drive sales by increasing shoppers' confidence levels in a site.
Full disclosure: Abt is a well-known seller of appliances and electronics in my home city of Chicago. Abt's delivery vehicles are frequently seen around my neighborhood, and there's a freezer and a pair of headphones in my house that came from Abt's retail store. Long before the web and ecommerce, Abt already had a reputation for quality products and quick delivery.
Using Google Trusted Stores to Build Trust Online
How to translate that reputation to the Internet, and how to sell an appliance- and furniture-heavy inventory online? You might think the association with Google is key. But it's just step in a long-term plan of gradual expansion, according to Abt.
"A few years ago we were invited to test the Trusted Store program and we have been a member of that ever since," says Abt. "I don't know how we got invited to join the program. We started with Google's Paid Search program, which used to be called Google Shopping, and is now PLAs (Product Listing Ads). For people who don't know our company, it helps solidify us as a legitimate business. And it's good for Google because we do provide them with a lot of data."
EcommerceBytes covered the tradeoff of using Google Trusted Stores in this June 2012 article. In order to participate as a Trusted Store, a seller has to provide data feeds to Google showing order confirmations, estimated ship dates and shipper tracking numbers.
Google claims that AdWords customers who run Google Trusted Stores see more click-throughs on their ads. Abt's Online Marketing Manager Bob Lambert said as much himself.
"It really helps us stand out from the crowd," he commented. "There are features of Trusted Stores that translate to our Paid Search ads. We have five star ratings." Visitors to Trusted Stores see ratings on customer service, shipping and return policies.
Abt says his working relationship with Google is quite good, but that's primarily because the company has been assigned its own account representative. "We initially started with a really slow paid search program. When PLA opened up and Google saw the depth of product selection we have, we got a dedicated account rep." Before that, he added, it was more difficult to contact Google.
Standing on Its Own Merits
Abt said the Trusted Store program does drive traffic, but added that "I wouldn't say it's a huge portion of our overall business, but rather, people finding us naturally through organic search or people coming directly to our website. We don't think it's a huge benefit for us. We stand on our own merits. Over 78 years our focus has been customer service, and that's how we have grown - through customers coming to our retail store or by word of mouth."
That's the core approach to how this traditional brick-and-mortar retailer is competing with startups: not by growing as quickly as possible, but gradually, through content developed in-house, and creating a good buying experience.
To be sure, Abt covers all the online sales and marketing bases, including:
- Free shipping. This is available even on heavy appliances.
- Affiliates. Abt has more than 3,000 affiliates promoting its products. (They are also a member of eBay's affiliate network.)
- Relationship with manufacturers. Abt is a preferred vendor with all of its manufacturers, which promote the company.
- Shopping comparison sites. Abt makes sure its products are listed on Shopping.co, BizRate, and similar marketplaces.
Improving Search Rankings with Photos, Videos and Content
Abt is hardly a newcomer to ecommerce, having created its first website in 1997 and adding ecommerce in 1998. "We started small and tested the waters early," says Abt.
After outsourcing its website work, the company has gradually assembled a staff of 80 working on ecommerce alone. They focus on generating unique content to improve search rankings. "We rely on hundreds of salespeople who help us get pertinent information on the website," he says. "We have a studio where we photograph products and make 360-degree views of them so you can "spin" them. We do product videos in-house with our own salespeople describing what they like and what they don't like."
Defying Convention: Saying No to International Sales
One thing Abt doesn't do is sell outside the U.S. They have no immediate plans to do business overseas. In fact, when I asked about marketing approaches to avoid, Lambert said: "We have talked about expanding internationally in the past but have heard horror stories from other retailers that have tried to expand too quickly and have fallen on their feet because of tariffs, inventory, and shipping from one country to another. We want to focus on the customer experience."
It doesn't mean Abt takes a parochial view - employees at the retailer come from six continents and dozens of countries, and employees at Abt speak over 20 different languages.
Abt's focus on long-term steady growth applies to its employee base. Abt has three of his brothers on staff, plus many other relatives. This makes for especially entertaining employee picnics in summer, he jokes. "It's a family business. Our father is here, and for the first time some of our children are here working at summer jobs."
About the author:
Greg Holden is EcommerceBytes Contributing Editor. He is a journalist and the author of many books, including "Starting an Online Business For Dummies," "Go Google: 20 Ways to Reach More Customers and Build Revenue with Google Business Tools," and several books about eBay, including "How to Do Everything with Your eBay Business," second edition, and "Secrets of the eBay Millionaires," both published by Osborne-McGraw Hill. Find out more on Greg's website, which includes his blog, a list of his books, and his fiction and biographical writing.
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